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US: Putin approved operations to help Trump against Biden

FILE - In this June 9, 2020, file photo, election workers process mail-in ballots during a...
FILE - In this June 9, 2020, file photo, election workers process mail-in ballots during a nearly all-mail primary election in Las Vegas. A surge of absentee ballots during last year's election led to concerns that a larger percentage of mailed ballots could be rejected for arriving past the deadline, not having a voter's signature or some other reason. An analysis by The Associated Press shows that didn't happen.(AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Published: Mar. 16, 2021 at 1:25 PM MDT|Updated: Mar. 16, 2021 at 4:27 PM MDT
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(AP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations to help Donald Trump in last November’s presidential election, according to a declassified intelligence assessment that found broad efforts by the Kremlin and Iran to shape the outcome of the race but ultimately no evidence that any foreign actor changed votes or otherwise disrupted the voting process.

The report released Tuesday from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence represents the most detailed assessment of the array of foreign threats to the 2020 election. These included efforts by Iran to undermine confidence in the vote and harm Trump’s re-election prospects as well as Moscow operations that used Trump’s allies to smear Joe Biden, the eventual winner.

Despite those threats, though, intelligence officials found “no indications that any foreign actor attempted to interfere in the 2020 US elections by altering any technical aspect of the voting process, including voter registration, ballot casting, vote tabulation, or reporting results.”

The report is the latest official affirmation of the integrity of the election, even as Trump supporters continue to make false claims of interference, from foreign or domestic actors, and refuse to accept Biden’s victory. Multiple courts and even Trump’s own Justice Department refuted claims of widespread fraud. The document makes clear that even while Trump has cried foul about the legitimacy of the election, intelligence officials believe Russia leaned on his associates to try to tip the outcome of the election.

The report wades into the politically freighted assessments of ferreting out which foreign adversaries supported which candidates during the 2020 presidential election. Trump, whose 2016 election effort benefited from hacking by Russian intelligence officers and a covert social media campaign, seized on an intelligence community assessment from August that said China preferred a Biden presidency to Trump’s re-election. And his intelligence director faced blowback from some Democrats for a hastily called news conference on Iranian efforts he said were aimed against Trump.

Tuesday’s report, however, says China ultimately did not interfere on either side and “considered but did not deploy” influence operations aimed at affecting the outcome. U.S. officials say they determined that Beijing valued a stable relationship with the U.S. and did not consider either election outcome as advantageous enough for it to risk getting caught with interference.

The primary threats instead came from Russia and Iran, albeit with different intentions and through different means, according to intelligence officials.

In the case of Russia, the report says, Russia sought to undermine Biden’s candidacy because it viewed his presidency as disadvantageous to the Kremlin, though it likely took some steps to prepare for a Democratic administration as the election neared.

The report also says Putin authorized influence operations aimed at denigrating Biden, boosting Trump, undermining confidence in the election and exacerbating social divisions in the U.S.

Central to that effort was the reliance on proxies linked to Russian intelligence “to launder influence narratives” by using media organizations and people close to Trump to push “false” and “misleading” smear campaigns against Biden.

Intelligence officials did not single out any Trump ally in that effort, but longtime associate Rudy Giuliani met repeatedly with Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach, who released heavily edited recordings of Biden speaking while vice president with Ukraine’s then-president in an effort to link him to unsubstantiated corruption. U.S. officials have said they regard Derkach as an active Russian agent, and Tuesday’s report said Putin is believed to have “purview” over his activities.

Notably, though, Russia was not as aggressive as in past election cycles in trying to hack election infrastructure, and the report says that Russian cyber operations that targeted state and local government networks last year were probably not focused on the election and were instead part of a broader effort to target U.S. and global entities.

Iran, meanwhile, carried out its own influence campaign aimed at harming Trump’s re-election bid, an effort U.S. officials say was approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

One “highly targeted operation” — the subject of an October news conference by then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray — involved a flurry of emails to Democratic voters in battleground states that falsely purported to be from the far-right group Proud Boys and threatened the recipients if they didn’t vote for Trump.

Iran’s efforts, which officials say were more aggressive than in past elections and continued even after the contest was over, were focused on sowing discord in the U.S., likely because Tehran believed that would hurt Trump’s re-election chances.

Though Iran sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of state election websites, and did “compromise US entities associated with election infrastructure as a part of a broad targeting effort across multiple sectors worldwide,” it did not attempt to manipulate votes or affect election infrastructure.

The 15-page document is a declassified version of a broader election interference report that was provided to Trump on Jan. 7, one day after a riot at the U.S. Capitol that occurred while Congress had gathered to certify the election results.

A separate document released Tuesday from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security reached a similar conclusion about the integrity of the election.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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